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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 573-575

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Book Review

Des sciences et des techniques: Un débat

Des sciences et des techniques: Un débat. Edited by Roger Guesneries and François Hartog. Paris: Éditions de l'École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1998. Pp. 345; illustrations, tables. Fr 120.

Based on a seminar series held in Paris in 1996, this book offers a summary of issues surrounding current approaches to the study of science and technology, including some of the tensions afflicting the social sciences. There are twenty-six essays, all by noted specialists, grouped in seven sections. Though valuable as an introductory survey, this volume nonetheless frustrates the reader because of its superficial editing. In the absence of a full introduction, one must rely on each contributor in the hope of drawing proper conclusions about the state of research in the fields discussed.

The first four sections focus on the history and philosophy of science. Bruno Latour leads off, summarizing the poor state of science studies in France and suggesting remedies. He also emphasizes that science studies is not simply an extension of the social sciences and clarifies the nature of the debate he has been involved in recently. In so doing, he acknowledges a debt [End Page 573] to the social constructionists and suggests several ways to contextualize the "hard" sciences. Latour thus delineates the themes around which contributors such as Lorraine Daston and Roger Chartier offer their views on how to approach research, from epistemology to the comparative history of non-Western sciences. While some sections are well balanced and self-contained (the one on epistemology and social history is a model of dialogue between researchers), other contributions do not always fit in clearly. For example, Françoise Saban's very helpful essay on the history of Chinese technology is assimilated into the second section on the philosophy of knowledge (perhaps out of deference to Joseph Needham's pioneering work) when it would likely have served as a nice balance to Ulrich Wengenroth's comparison of Western technologies, specifically the use of tramcars in the United States and in Eastern Europe. One wishes that the editors had been more careful.

The last three sections of the book are devoted to technology. Echoing the contributions of Wengenroth and David Edgerton, several French scholars argue for the study of artifacts separately from the notion of innovation. They say that the routine use of artifacts should be documented as thoroughly as is their invention. This does not mean, however, that the French contributors are parroting work from the English-speaking world (although the footnotes to some of the articles resemble an annual Technology and Culture bibliography). In fact, they offer interesting departures in methodology and helpful insight into attitudes of French scholarship toward the history of science and technology. Frédéric Joulian, for example, notes that French archaeology remains fixed in empiricism and distrusts overly deductive approaches, and thus may have an advantage in the study of everyday objects.

Some essays evidence shortcomings either in methodology or research. For example, whenever the contributors discuss the concept of duration they scarcely leave the mold of the Annales school. The literature cited is either French or Anglo-Saxon and the citations almost completely ignore the value of the German Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life), which has taken the idea of duration in new theoretical and empirical directions. Furthermore, several essays exhibit a fault common to summaries of longer works, namely, failing to completely document their authors' research and train of thought.

Though helpful as a survey of several fields and trends in theory and methodology‚ this book nonetheless feels disjointed. It is akin to a volume of conference proceedings that omits clear links between the main themes. In their very brief introduction, the editors praise the participants for their willingness to interact across disciplinary boundaries, but the reader is not made privy to any of these interactions. Granted, the task of constructing a thoughtful overview would have been enormous, yet by failing to do so the editors assume...


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